Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Abortion law reform in Victoria

The Victorian State Government has introduced a bill to decriminalise abortion. The bill [PDF] is the result of an investigation by the Victorian Law Reform Commission, and would significantly liberalise the law. Currently abortion in Victoria operates under similar restrictions to New Zealand - it is a crime, but lawful if a doctor believes it necessary to prevent "a serious danger to [the woman's] life or her physical or mental health". The big differences are that the ordinary dangers of pregnancy are specifically excluded from the equation, termination must be a "proportionate response" to the risks, and that the regime has been established by a court judgement rather than by statute. However, abortion rates in Victoria are similar to those in New Zealand, so the law doesn't seem to create any great barrier (there are however significant geographic barriers for anyone living outside Melbourne).

The VLRC presented the government with three options: codification of the existing law, abortion on demand, or a two-tier system, with abortion on demand up to 24 weeks, and restrictions similar to the existing scheme after that. The government has gone for the latter option. However, they've significantly changed the framework for post-24 week abortions. Instead of one of the proposed variations on the existing "preventing serious danger" standard, the bill instead allows abortion if two doctors believe it is "appropriate in all the circumstances", including "all relevant medical circumstances" and "the woman's current and future physical, psychological and social circumstances". The loss of the proportionality clause means this is likely to be somewhat looser than the current regime - but we'll probably have to wait for a court case to find that out.

The bill will also repeal existing offences around abortion and "child destruction", replacing the latter by including it in the definition of "serious injury". Abortions performed by "unqualified persons" will still be criminal, and carry the same penalty of 10 years imprisonment. Unlawful abortions performed by medical practitioners will simply be a medical disciplinary problem. All existing common law around abortion being a criminal offence will be repealed for clarity.

This bill doesn't go the whole way towards complete decriminalisation and treating abortion as a purely medical issue. But it is a significant improvement on the present situation. The question now is whether it will pass.

[Hat tip: Larvatus Prodeo]